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Part river town, part wine trail, and part historic hub: Cottonwood, Arizona, offers a fun and lively scene that sets it apart from the arid desert to the south and the soaring mountains to the north.

Although it might be best known as a gateway to the nearby red rocks of Sedona, Cottonwood has plenty of charms of its own. They start with the quaint Old Town district and branch out to the banks of the lushly green Verde River and the nearby historic towns of Clarkdale and Jerome.

You might initially go to Cottonwood for its proximity to the famous red rocks, but don’t be surprised if you want to stay for the laid-back atmosphere and excellent restaurant and bar scene.

As a frequent visitor to Cottonwood over the years, I’ve always loved the Verde River’s swath of vivid green that winds its way through the browns and grays of the high-desert terrain. For me, Cottonwood offers the perfect mix of small-town Arizona, cool river vibes, and burgeoning wine scene.

Located virtually in the center of Arizona, Cottonwood features a mild climate that is somewhere between the sizzling heat of the Phoenix area and the cool mountain air of Flagstaff -- making it a true year-round destination.

Average high temperatures in the winter hover around the 60-degree mark, and summer averages tend to reach the high 90s and low 100s. Springtime is lovely, with average highs in the 70s to 80s. Fall remains hot and sunny through October, when average highs are in the low 80s.

Here are 11 of the best things to do in Cottonwood.

The Historic Old Town of Cottonwood, Arizona.

1. Explore The Historic Old Town

Any visit to Cottonwood should start with a stop in the Historic Old Town, a district that dates back to the early 1900s, when it was a center for the area’s mining and smelter industry. Today, many of the buildings feature the rock and brick architecture of the 1920s and 1930s.

The town’s Clemenceau Smelter closed down in 1936, which dealt a devastating blow to the local economy, according to the city’s website. In recent decades, though, the Old Town has been revitalized as a vibrant business and tourism district.

Cottonwood’s Old Town currently features 60 businesses, including five tasting rooms, 13 cafes and restaurants, nine antique stores, six galleries, and three hotels.

For a fun weekend, plan to stay in one of the Old Town’s boutique hotels, such as The Tavern Hotel, located in a renovated 1925 building, and then spend an evening wandering Main Street, stopping at any of the tasting rooms that interest you. I recommend checking out the hip Pillsbury Wine Company and the friendly Winery 101 before having dinner around an outdoor fire pit at Pizzeria Bocce Patio Bar.

Because the Old Town area is relatively small and compact, the restaurants and tasting rooms are wonderfully walkable. Convenient parking lots are sprinkled throughout the area; watch for the colorful public parking signs.

2. Experience The Verde River

You’re never far from the cool waters of the Verde River in Cottonwood. As one of only two Wild and Scenic Rivers in Arizona, the Verde is a definite must-see on any visit to the region.

The Cottonwood and Clarkdale communities offer many convenient spots to access the river -- some that are right on the beaten path, and others that are more hidden away. For fishing, swimming, kayaking, and canoeing, check out Clarkdale’s Tuzigoot River Access Point, or the Bignotti Picnic Site between Cottonwood and Camp Verde (accessed via a rough dirt road recommended only during dry weather).

The Jail Trail along the Verde River.

3. Hit The Jail Trail

Or, for an even easier encounter with the Verde River, opt for the Jail Trail, located just steps from the streets of the Old Town. Towering Fremont cottonwood trees, with their glossy-green leaves, crowd the banks of the Verde, offering a cool respite on a hot summer day.

Even though the trail is located right in the middle of town, it doesn’t take more than a few steps in to experience a feeling of wilderness. The 1.5-mile trail has little elevation gain and is rated as easy, although it has some rocky and sandy areas.

4. Visit Dead Horse Ranch State Park

Another great access point for the Verde River is available at Dead Horse Ranch State Park, located adjacent to the state’s Verde River Greenway and not far from Old Town Cottonwood.

Known for its giant cottonwood trees, pretty fishing ponds, and wildlife viewing, Dead Horse attracts locals and visitors alike. The park is also a magnet for those looking for a peaceful campground in a moderate climate.

5. Picnic At Riverfront Park

For a more developed river experience complete with ballfields, picnic tables, and rock sculptures, Cottonwood’s sprawling Riverfront Park sits not far from the Old Town and Dead Horse. It’s the perfect spot for a walk or a shady break from sightseeing.

For visitors traveling with dogs, Riverfront Park also includes a 1.3-acre dog park that has separate areas for small/shy dogs and large dogs.

Oak Creek Vineyards Winery in Cottonwood, Arizona.

6. Savor The Verde Valley Wine Trail

Although Old Town Cottonwood has a concentrated selection of wine tasting rooms, it is just a sampling of the many wine offerings available throughout the Verde Valley and Sedona.

The Verde Valley Wine Trail, billed as the heart of Arizona wine country, offers about 25 winery/vineyard stops that stretch all the way from the steep mountainside of Jerome to the Verde River communities of Clarkdale and Cottonwood to the Oak Creek communities of Page Springs and Sedona.

The wine trail’s website offers a passport that lists the stops along the route, and throughout the year, communities celebrate the region’s wine with festivals such as the Verde Valley Wine Festival and the Sedona WineFest.

Up the Creek Bistro and Wine Bar in Page Springs.

7. Explore The Page Springs Area

Integral to the Verde Valley Wine Trail is the Page Springs area, where vineyard rows line the hills that rise from the region’s scenic Oak Creek, a tributary of the Verde River.

A drive along Page Springs Road is definitely worth the 20-minute trip from Cottonwood. The road dips and rises through the Oak Creek Canyon and passes by scenic wineries such as Oak Creek Vineyards & Winery, with its selection of Arizona wines, and D.A. Ranch Lodge & Estate Vineyards, which features a luxurious log-cabin venue fronted by a lovely tree-lined pond. Plan to spend several hours meandering along Page Springs Road and sampling the variety of wines available.

Top it off with a lunch or dinner with stunning views of Oak Creek at Up the Creek Bistro and Wine Bar.

The Tuzigoot National Monument in Arizona.

8. Tour The Tuzigoot National Monument

While much of the Verde Valley is steeped in the mining and frontier history of the late 1800s and early 1900s, the pueblo at Tuzigoot National Monument in Clarkdale goes back hundreds of years more.

Experts estimate that the 110-room hilltop pueblo dates back 900 years or more to when the native Sinagua people traded and farmed the fertile land along the Verde River. The pueblo ruins were excavated and reconstructed in the 1930s, and today they offer a glimpse of the lives of those early farmers and artists.

The national monument is located between Cottonwood and Clarkdale. Climb to the top of the pueblo for expansive views of the Verde River Valley and the nearby Mingus Mountain.

9. Travel Back In Time In Clarkdale

For a fascinating step back in time to a more recent era, visitors should be sure to explore the neighborhoods of Clarkdale, located about 4 miles from Cottonwood, also along the Verde River.

Many of the town’s charming brick and stucco houses date to the early 1900s, when Clarkdale was a “company town” for the United Verde Copper Company. Clarkdale is also the base for the Verde Canyon Railroad, which takes passengers along the river’s scenic canyon.

The town of Jerome, Arizona.

10. Learn About Arizona’s Mining History In Jerome

Delve even deeper into mining history by continuing along Highway 89A toward Jerome, a one-time mining boomtown.

Over the years, Jerome transitioned from its late-1800s mining heyday to a veritable ghost town in the 1950s and 1960s. Today, tourists flood Jerome’s steep, winding streets to take in the old buildings perched precariously on the mountainside and the quirky selection of shops, restaurants, and wineries.

Along with its mining history, Jerome offers many spots for lunch or dinner with sweeping views of the Verde Valley below. I recommend stopping by Grapes Restaurant and Bar for a signature create-your-own pasta bowl or a specialty pizza and a glass of Arizona wine. The meal comes with the requisite dose of history as well; the building originally served as a Pony Express station in the early 1900s.

More history awaits at the interesting Jerome Historical Society Museum, which offers a look back at Jerome’s days as the “Wickedest Town in the West.”

The Mingus Mountain Scenic Road in Arizona.

11. Take The Mingus Mountain Scenic Road

For some flat-out gorgeous mountain scenery, continue southwest from Jerome on Highway 89A toward Prescott. But be prepared for plenty of hairpin turns and slow-going traffic on the highway that is a favorite for tourists and motorcyclists.

The highway climbs to over 7,000 feet in elevation at the summit and offers consistently spectacular views of the rugged Mingus Mountain. The route passes through the Prescott National Forest, and a number of scenic trails are available along the way, such as the Woodchute Trail (a 2.3-mile moderate climb) and the Yeager Canyon Trail (a 2.4-mile difficult hike). Both trails traverse rough, primitive terrain.

The drive is great for a sightseeing excursion to the summit or for a day trip to the historic community of Prescott, which is about a 50-minute drive from Jerome.

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